The Man Trump Picked to Run EPA
Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, was selected by President Donald Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and confirmed by the Senate in a 52-46 vote. When it comes to environmental issues, the record shows that Pruitt has been a virtual lobbyist for the state’s oil and gas companies, the agricultural industry, and other business groups. He also has a history of fighting federal action on environmental issues, cutting back on state enforcement, denying the reality of climate change and trying to block clean water regulations.
Originally from Kentucky, Pruitt, 48, built a national reputation, including as Chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, for suing EPA a dozen times in a politically-charged campaign to try to scale back the power of the federal agency.
Since taking over as EPA Administrator on Feb. 17, 2017, Pruitt has stacked the agency with climate change skeptics who deny the scientific consensus on global warming. Pruitt has hired many former staffers of Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who famously held up a snowball in the Senate and proclaimed that it was evidence that the climate was not warming. President Trump proposed slashing the agency’s budget by 31 percent and eliminating the jobs of 3,200 employees at EPA. For our detailed examination of these proposed budget cuts, click here.
A graduate of the University of Tulsa Law School who served as a Republican state senator from 1998 to 2006, Pruitt was elected state Attorney General in 2010. He eliminated the office’s environmental enforcement unit and instead created a “Federalism Unit” to litigate against what he described as “overreach by the federal government.” But his overheated rhetoric has not impressed the federal courts, which have largely rejected his arguments.
Pruitt claims to have had “jealously guarded Oklahoma’s prerogative to regulate in both a sensible and sensitive way.” But he never actually exercised his “prerogative” to enforce pollution laws in his own state, even where violations result in massive spills or cause injury or death. Pruitt was reluctant to protect Oklahoma from out of state polluters, failing to follow through with a lawsuit brought by his predecessor to stop Arkansas chicken farms from polluting a river flowing into Oklahoma and the now algae-smothered Tenkiller Ferry Lake. But that dismal record on water pollution did not stop him from filing a legal action against EPA – unsuccessfully – to prevent it from protecting the Chesapeake Bay from polluters in upstream states.
In short, Pruitt is an extreme right-wing ideologue with no interest in environmental law or science that does not serve his industry clients. He has publicly declared that “regulatory rollback” would be his top priority at EPA. If you need more evidence, read further below.
Ties to Fossil Fuel Industries
Pruitt has been very sensitive to his state’s large oil and gas industry, which donated more than $360,000 to his political campaigns. (For a detailed listing all of his campaign contributions, click here.) The honorary chairman of Pruitt’s 2014 election campaign was Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of one of the largest oil and gas companies in Oklahoma, Continental Resources. Hamm serves as an energy advisor to Trump.
A Pulitzer-Prize winning 2014 New York Times investigation found that Pruitt took a letter written by oil and gas industry lobbyists opposing EPA regulations, copied it word for word onto his own stationery, and sent it to EPA as the official position of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office.
“Outstanding!” wrote a lobbyist for Oklahoma-based Devon Energy, praising Pruitt’s advocacy on behalf of the company, according to The Times.
In his public appearances, Pruitt is often an outspoken evangelist for expanded drilling and hydraulic fracturing. “We are living in a great renaissance,” Pruitt said during a 2014 speech before the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative lobbying organization. ” We should be exporting natural gas. And we should be exporting oil….There’s only one thing standing in the way, in respect to us seeing a tremendous change across this country and manufacturing revitalized. And that’s the government.”
The fact is, however, that government is not “standing in the way” of the oil and gas industry — with hydraulic fracturing expanding rapidly and fuel production skyrocketing during President Obama’s years in office. Natural gas production in the U.S. jumped from 20,158,602 million cubic feet in 2008 to 27,059,503 million cubic feet in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration — hardly evidence of an industry “killed” by Obama’s EPA.
Pruitt told the American Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), an industry trade group, in a video posted on YouTube in 2012: “It’s great thing to be in partnership with ANGA. …And it’s important to have organizations like ANGA communicating the message of energy independence, the development of natural gas…but then also partnering with states and the Attorneys General to make sure that enforcement and action is taken to preserve that (state) role” in regulating the oil and gas industry.
Pruitt’s political career has also been supported by coal mining interests. In August, one of America’s biggest coal companies, Murray Energy, gave $50,000 to a political action committee supporting Pruitt called “Liberty 2.0.” The payment came just as the Oklahoma attorney general prepared for a key court appearance in a challenge of U.S. EPA’s regulations on carbon dioxide from power plants.
Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists who own oil refineries, fertilizer factories and other plants, also have helped Pruitt. Freedom Partners, which coordinates the Koch Brothers’ political activities, in 2014 donated $175,000 to a nonprofit directed by Pruitt called the Rule of Law Defense Fund.
Cuts to Enforcement
While Pruitt argues that environmental enforcement is best left to the states, instead of the federal government, in reality his record shows that the subject has not been a priority for him at the state level, either.
Pruitt eliminated the Environmental Protection Unit in the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office. Pruitt cut funding for environmental law enforcement in his office from $463,000 in 2010 — the year before he arrived — to zero dollars in 2014. Pruitt’s spokesman said that Pruitt moved the environmental protection functions to a new unit, called the “Federalism Unit.” But the main focus of that new group appeared to be fighting environmental regulations coming out of EPA and suing the federal agency, not cracking down on local environmental problems or taking legal action against Oklahoma polluters.
In the state Attorney General Office’s 2016 budget, there was a line item for “environmental law” with zero dollars, according to a Greenwire analysis of state budget documents.
During his six years as Oklahoma’s top prosecutor, Pruitt issued 714 press releases — but not a single one described any kind of environmental enforcement action or penalty for a polluter, according to Pruitt’s website. By contrast, an Environmental Integrity Project examination of the press releases posted by the Oklahoma Attorney General found at least 50 touting his lawsuits, testimony and speeches that challenge rules to reduce air and water pollution, condemn EPA, and question the federal government’s right to protect the environment.
“What has Scott Pruitt ever done as Oklahoma Attorney General to protect the environment in his state?” asked Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
In the years before Pruitt took office, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office Environmental Protection Unit conducted 142 criminal investigations and 56 prosecutions for violations of environmental laws. Pruitt then eliminated the unit. There was not a single case that Pruitt filed during his time as attorney general that he has initiated in defense of the environment. Instead, Pruitt actively opposed regulations that protect clean air and water.
During his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on January 18, Pruitt suggested he had filed several lawsuits against oil companies — implying these were environmental enforcement matters. But in fact, these were financial fraud cases, in which oil companies double-billed private insurance companies and taxpayers for the cost of cleaning up fuel that leaked from storage tanks at gas stations. After the hearing, America Rising Squared, a Republican political group, removed from its “ConfirmPruitt.com” website all mentions of these four “double-dipping” cases against oil companies. As it turns out, one of the lawsuits, against Exxon Mobil, was never actually filed; another, against Valero, was dropped by Pruitt; another, against BP, has been dormant; and a fourth, against Phillips 66, was quietly settled by Pruitt.
The consequences of a poorly regulated oil and gas industry in Oklahoma have been significant. Although earthquakes were once rare in the state, with only one to three minor earthquakes every year before 2009, Oklahoma now experiences hundreds per year, and now averages one to three earthquakes per day. According to the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and the Environment, state geologists have concluded that the majority of these earthquakes are linked to the oil and gas industry’s injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing into underground caverns.
“I have grave concerns about Mr. Pruitt,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. “One of the fundamental tests for whether a person should be confirmed is whether that person believes in the mission of the agency in which he or she is becoming the leader of. And in Mr. Pruitt’s case, it’s hard to believe he really believes that the Environmental Protection Agency should be there protecting the environment.”
Climate Change Denier
On perhaps the most pressing environmental issue of our day — climate change — Pruitt (like Trump) denies the overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gases from human industry are warming the atmosphere and oceans. “That debate is far from settled,” Pruitt wrote in National Review. “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
That denial puts Pruitt at odds with NASA, the National Academies of Science, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and all other respected scientific bodies. NASA’s website on climate change, for example, has a headline reading, “Scientific Consensus” and then the text: “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the scientific evidence for the warming of the climate is beyond dispute. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen,” IPCC wrote in 2014. “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.”
As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt helped lead efforts by a coalition of mostly Republican states in suing EPA over the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Rule, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electric utility sector. That lawsuit convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to put a hold on implementation of the rule.
“When you take an agency whose primary responsibility is to deal with the climate crisis and you turn it over to someone who has spent his entire life in service to the regulated industry, that satisfies every definition of corruption in government,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island.
During Pruitt’s Senate confirmation hearing on January 18, Pruitt disagreed with Donald Trump’s position that climate change is a “hoax,” but adopted a Republican talking point that emphasized the (alleged) uncertainty of climate science, saying the extent of human contributions to climate change are still uncertain. “I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it,” Pruitt said during the hearing.
Pruitt’s uncertainty clashes with the opinions of 97 percent of climate scientists who have published peer-reviewed academic journal articles on global warming, who agree that greenhouse gasses from human industry are causing the rise in temperatures.
Opponent of Clean Water
Pruitt has fought against national clean water regulations. In 2015, he led a multi-state lawsuit to try to overturn the Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule, which seeks to protect wetlands and small streams that are the headwaters of larger bodies of water. Some oil and gas companies, real estate developers and ranchers oppose the regulations because in some cases it requires permits for development in environmentally sensitive areas.
“Instead of protecting our families’ right to clean air and water, Pruitt has demonstrated time and again that his main interest is protecting polluters,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat from Oregon. “He is a dangerous and unacceptable choice to lead the agency tasked with protecting clean air and clean water for all Americans.”
In the Chesapeake Bay region, Pruitt in 2010 filed a legal action against EPA in support of the American Farm Bureau’s lawsuit to overturn federal pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay. That lawsuit failed. But Pruitt’s amicus brief demonstrated that he does not support the federally-led Chesapeake Bay cleanup, which has been making progress the last five years.
Although Pruitt frequently makes loud protests about “state’s rights” — his objection to the 2010 EPA Bay pollution limits (the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load) could not really have been about “state’s rights,” because none of the bay region states joined in the legal challenge to EPA. The only local parties that objected to it were the agricultural industry, real estate developers, and fertilizer manufacturers. So Pruitt demonstrated that his real sympathies lie with these industries, not really with the bay region states or any meaningful Constitutional issue. The courts threw out the challenge by Pruitt and the industry lobbyists.
One of the biggest problems in the Chesapeake Bay is manure from industrial scale poultry farms and livestock operations flowing across state lines. In Oklahoma, Pruitt did nothing to stop interstate water pollution from the poultry industry in Arkansas that was pouring down the Illinois River to contaminate Oklahoma’s Tenkiller Ferry Lake, which became smothered in algae. Pruitt’s predecessor successfully sued Arkansas, but then Pruitt let the case drop and did not ask the judge for a decision that could have cleaned up Oklahoma’s waters.
Pruitt has also sued EPA over the agency’s rules to restrict methane leaks from oil and gas drilling sites on federal land; over EPA’s efforts to regulate regional haze and interstate air pollution; and over the agency’s communications with environmental organizations, among other subjects.
Pruitt’s Lawsuits Against EPA
As Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt took legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency—the agency he now wants to lead—on at least 12 occasions. He sued EPA nine times, and filed three friend of the court (or “amicus” briefs) regarding federal environmental rules and permitting. These lawsuits are in two main categories: ones in which Oklahoma was on its own or the lead party suing EPA and ones in which Oklahoma was one of many challengers. .
Clean Water Rule: In 2015, Pruitt filed a lawsuit challenging EPA’s “Clean Water Rule,” in which EPA clearly defined the full range of waters protected by the Clean Water Act. Pruitt claimed the new rule exceeded EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act and violated the Constitution (the Commerce Clause and Tenth Amendment). Similar to the outcome of the Clean Power Plan suit, the district court dismissed the case, finding that the U.S. Courts of Appeals have exclusive jurisdiction over reviewing EPA actions and that in this instance, the Sixth Circuit had assumed jurisdiction over all lawsuits challenging the Clean Water Rule. Oklahoma ex rel. Pruitt v. EPA, No. 15-CV-0381-CVE-FHM, 2016 WL 3189807 (N.D. Okla. Feb. 24, 2016).
Clean Power Plan (Proposed Rule): In 2015, Pruitt sued EPA after the agency proposed its “Clean Power Plan” rule for regulating carbon pollution from power plants. Two problems: the rule wasn’t final (this is a fundamental requirement), and lawsuits like this must be brought in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (Pruitt sued in federal district court in Oklahoma). The court dismissed the case promptly for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Oklahoma ex rel. Pruitt v. McCarthy, No. 15-CV-0369-CVE-FHM, 2015 WL 4414384 (N.D. Okla. July 17, 2015).
Regional Haze FOIA Appeal: In 2013, Pruitt filed a lawsuit against EPA after the agency denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Oklahoma and twelve other state attorney generals. The twelve states joined Oklahoma in the lawsuit. The FOIA sought correspondence between EPA and at least seventeen environmental organizations. The Court ruled against Oklahoma, agreeing with EPA that the FOIA request hadn’t “reasonably described” the information sought. For example, the request sought communications with not just the seventeen organizations, but also “any other organization.” Because the request was defective, Oklahoma and the states had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. Oklahoma v. EPA, No. CIV-13-726-M., 2013 WL 6714167 (W.D. Okla. Dec. 18, 2013).
Regional Haze Rule Implementation: In 2012, Pruitt petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to challenge EPA’s denial of Oklahoma’s state implementation plant under the Clean Air Act. EPA determined that Oklahoma’s plan failed to control sulfur dioxide at power plants, as required by the Regional Haze Rule, and therefore replaced it with a more stringent federal implementation plan. Pruitt’s lawsuit claimed that EPA overstepped its Clean Air Act authority in the denial and replacement, but the Court found EPA’s actions to be proper. Oklahoma v. EPA, 723 F.3d 1201 (10th Cir. 2013). Pruitt petitioned for Supreme Court review, which the Court denied. Oklahoma v. EPA, 134 S. Ct. 2662 (2014).
Clean Power Plan (Proposed Rule): In 2015, industry groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit challenging EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, in which multiple states—including Oklahoma–intervened. While this lawsuit was in the correct venue, unlike Pruitt’s lawsuit discussed above, it still had the central defect that EPA had not yet taken final action. As the Court stated in its order dismissing the petitions, “They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule.” In re Murray Energy Corp., 788 F.3d 330 (D.C. Cir. 2015), rehearing en banc denied
Clean Power Plan (Final Rule): In 2015, twenty-nine states and state agencies (including Oklahoma), along with various other petitioners, petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for review of EPA’s Clean Power Plan. While almost all the states petitioned together, Pruitt filed a separate petition for more visibility. Petitioners raised claims alleging that the Clean Power Plan infringed on state authority and violated the Clean Air Act by setting standards that were too stringent and for sources already regulated under the Act. Since then, the case has been anything but typical. On February 6, 2016, the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of ordering a stay of the Clean Power Plan pending disposition of the case by the D.C. Circuit (in a 5-4 ruling with no opinion). And the D.C. Circuit ordered the case heard en banc (i.e., by the full court), which occurred over seven hours on September 27, 2016. The case remains pending. West Virginia v. EPA, No. 15-1363 (D.C. Cir.).
Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (aka Transport Rule): In 2012, Oklahoma was one of multiple state, local, and industry petitioners that challenged EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (or Transport Rule), a Clean Air Act rule that sought to address the fact that air pollution doesn’t stop at political boundaries—sources in upwind states frequently affect air quality in downwind states. Over the course of four years, the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court addressed the petitioners’ multiple claims that broadly addressed issues with the rule “on its face,” as well as the rule’s application of the same, uniform “emissions budgets” to individual upwind states. In the final round of the case, the D.C. Circuit found that EPA’s emissions budgets were not valid as applied to thirteen upwind states, but rejected all other claims and refused to vacate the rule. EME Homer City Generation, L.P. v. EPA, 795 F.3d 118 (D.C. Cir. 2015).
Power Plant Hazardous Air Pollutants: In 2012, a number of industry and state petitioners (including Oklahoma) challenged EPA’s rulemaking process for setting Clean Air Act hazardous air pollutant standards for power plants. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the petition. White Stallion Energy Center, LLC v. EPA, 748 F.3d 1222 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The Supreme Court granted review. The petitioners claimed that, in deciding whether to set the hazardous air pollutant standards for power plants, EPA was required to consider the standards’ costs. In a 5-4 decision by Justice Scalia, the Court agreed. The ruling was largely a symbolic one, given that EPA had already conducted the needed costs analysis and the Court left the rule in place as EPA incorporated the analysis. Michigan v. EPA, 135 S. Ct. 2699 (2015).
Greenhouse Gas Stationary Source Rules: In 2012, multiple petitioners (including Oklahoma and other states) challenged EPA’s greenhouse gas rules for stationary sources. The D.C. Circuit dismissed some of the petitions on the basis of jurisdiction and denied the rest on the substance. Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. EPA, 684 F.3d 102 (D.C. Cir. 2012). The Supreme Court granted review on one question: whether EPA was correct in determining that regulation of GHG emissions from motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements for stationary sources. In a fractured and segmented opinion, the Court largely upheld EPA’s rulemaking. The Court found that EPA incorrectly interpreted the CAA as compelling or allowing EPA to regulate stationary sources for GHGs emissions alone. But the Court also found that EPA’s decision was permissible in applying GHG requirements to sources already subject to regulation due to other pollutants (aka “anyway sources”), which account for 83 percent of GHG emissions from stationary sources. Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 134 S. Ct. 2427 (2014).
Under Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma also signed on to three “amicus briefs,” filed in order to advocate for certain outcomes in cases filed by other parties.
Chesapeake Bay TMDL: In 2014, Oklahoma and twenty other states filed an amicus brief supporting a challenge to EPA’s “Total Maximum Daily Load” for the Chesapeake Bay. The brief claimed that the TMDL went beyond EPA’s Clean Water Act authority and encroached on the authority of the Bay states. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in favor of EPA, finding that EPA acted within its authority and did not violate state powers. American Farm Bureau Fed’n v. EPA, 792 F.3d 281 (3d Cir. 2015). The states filed another amicus brief in favor of the Supreme Court reviewing the Third Circuit’s decision, but the Supreme Court declined.
Clean Air Act Ethanol Fuel Regulations: In 2011, Oklahoma and three other states filed an amicus brief supporting a challenge by several industry trade associations to EPA’s approval of “E15” ethanol-containing gasoline for use in motor vehicles. The trade associations claimed that the Clean Air Act did not authorize EPA’s “partial waivers” for fuel. State amici asserted the same and claimed interest in the case on the basis that E15 would damage state equipment and increase the cost of food. The Court dismissed the case, finding that none of the trade organizations possessed standing to bring the case. Grocery Manufacturers’ Ass’n v. EPA, 693 F.3d 169 (D.C. Cir. 2012).
Permitting for Kansas Rail and Truck Terminal: In 2011, Oklahoma and Kansas filed an amicus brief opposing environmental groups’ challenge to the U.S. Army Corps’ permitting of intermodal terminal in Kansas. The states used their brief to focus on the Army Corps’ justification that the permit should issue because of Kansas’ effective and enforceable air regulatory program. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of the Army Corps, affirming the lower court’s decision that the agency had conducted sufficient analysis of the terminal’s air impacts. Hillsdale Environmental Loss Prevention, Inc. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 702 F.3d 1156 (10th Cir. 2012).